THE PATRON SAINT OF SECOND AVENUE
My father talked to me about his uncle, Virgilio Vignola, for as long as I could remember. But it was as if Virgilio was either dead or lived on the other side of the world. He was neither. While we lived in Queens, just across from the Fifty-Ninth Street Bridge, Virgilio lived in a five-story walk-up apartment building in Manhattan on Second Avenue and Twelfth Street.
“Why don’t you visit him?” I asked my father.
“I haven’t seen him in twenty years, since my father died.”
“You can visit him now, right?”
“He’s a private person,” said my father. “He doesn’t want to be in touch.”
“Does he have a phone number?”
“I don’t think he has a phone, or at least he doesn’t give out his number.”
My father told me that the last time he had visited Virgilio was with my mother and his sister, Anne. In Nineteen Fifty-five.
“We had just gotten married. At that time, Virgilio still entertained guests, though he never came to family events and never to anyone’s house.”
“Where did he live then?” I asked.
“In a tenement apartment on Second Avenue, before they tore them all down.” He paused. “He was crazy, Virgilio.”
“What do you mean?”
“Let me tell you. When we went to his house, he greets us at the door in a red velvet smoking jacket.” Now my father started to laugh a little.
“He walks us from the door to his living room, puffing a long cigarette in a fancy cigarette holder. You have to understand, the entire apartment is decorated like the inside of a navy ship.”
I waited for him to continue.
“He was in the navy during World War II. And he was this incredible genius. He built portal windows like you’d see in a navy ship and mounted them on the walls. He replaced the bathroom door with naval ship compartment doors. And he hung an anchor on the wall. The living room looked like the helm of a ship, with a steering wheel built into the floor. “
“So what happened then?”
“He walks us into his apartment and introduces us to Haiku, who he refers to as his man servant.”
“How could he afford a man servant?”
“He was probably his boyfriend,” said my father. “At that time, people didn’t always talk so openly about those things.”
“So he was gay?”
“Yes, he was gay,” replied my father, nodding his head. “Then, he sits us down in the living room and offers to play the piano for us. On the piano is a silver candelabra. The house is dimly lit, the candles flickering shadows on the walls. He starts playing this beautiful classical piece. I don’t know what it was. I have to admit, it’s pretty amazing. But my sister, Anne, being the person she is, asks him if he could play something rag-time. Virgilio doesn’t appreciate the comment. He rolls his eyes a bit then starts playing a rag-time piece. He quickly gets bored and then he resumes playing classical. “
“Why do you think he was annoyed at being asked to play a rag-time piece?”
“Virgilio wanted to do what he wanted to do. And people always wanted him to be what they wanted him to be. The guy could do anything. He worked for the police as a police sketcher. He played several instruments. He even performed some medical procedures.”
“Where did he learn how to do these things?”
“I have no idea. He must have read books in the library. But he also had enormous ability. His mother thought he was a genius,” my father said.
“One time, his mother asked him to lance a mole off of her face; she had complete confidence in her son. He said he could do it. The family was worried that he’d make her bleed to death or maybe give her an infection. He’d never done anything like this before. But no, he performs the procedure and it’s perfect. The mole came off without a hitch.”
“Wait, it gets crazier,” said my father. “After the mole procedure, he started calling himself a doctor. Dr. Vignola. His father, who had worked on the railroads, had bad feet. He started to complain about his toe. Virgilio offered to cut his toe off. He said that the toe was corrupted and would only get infected or worse overtime. Now, unlike his mother, Virgilio’s father was always a little afraid of Virgilio. For years, his father used to say that he was afraid to sleep at night, so he slept with the lights on. “
“Did he ever perform the toe procedure?” I asked.
“No, by the time Virgilio’s father died, his toe curled up into his foot, like a turtle’s head escaping into its shell. He even started sleeping with shoes on, too. In fact, he slept with shoes on both feet, so Virgilio wouldn’t cut the toe off of either foot.” My father laughed a little. “I think he drove the old man a little crazy.”
“That’s hysterical,” I said. But why was Virgilio so private, I asked. It sounded like he withdrew from his family over time.
“Well,” my father started, “first of all, being gay, he was concerned that his family would judge him, which they did. He didn’t have kids. He wasn’t interested in anyone else’s kids. Why was he so selfish, they say? Why doesn’t he come to weddings, funerals, and on the holidays? He didn’t really like being treated as odd, though he didn’t really do anything to change anyone’s opinion of him. He was different. He was extraordinary. He had great things on his mind. But he was surrounded by ordinary people.”
“Do you think he would be okay if I visited him now?” I asked.
“You could try,” said my father. “He might yell at you and tell you to leave.” I shrugged like I wouldn’t care if he did. “I think he hangs out at the candy store on Second Avenue and Twelfth Street still,” he then added.
I finally worked up the courage to go visit Virgilio. I was afraid that I’d be intruding on his world. But I had to meet this man. My father told me stories about some of the eccentric artist types in his family, but I’d never met any of them. Virgilio was the crown jewel of them all.
I took a bus from Eighty-Eighth Street and Second Avenue, filled with anticipation. It was like we had a Michelangelo or a Da Vinci in our family.
I got off the bus at Twelfth Street and ambled over to the candy store.
“Excuse me,” I said to the man behind the counter. “Do you know a man named Virgilio?”
“Who?” replied the man, acting like I was wasting his time.
“Virgilio, doesn’t he hang out here?”
“I don’t know nobody by that name.”
“He lives in the building next to the store,” I said.
“Like I said, I don’t know nobody with that name,” barked the man now, as he stacked a pile of newspapers on the counter.
I walked out of the store, my shoulders slumped over. I had thought that meeting Virgilio would help me find a missing piece to the puzzle of my family. Like Virgilio my father was a very talented self-taught artist. He even once carved a chess piece out of chalk for my sister’s school project for which she’d won an award. He had never carved anything before.
My father made caricatures of famous people, like Duke Ellington and Dean Martin, using colored ink pens. He had a very unique sense of developing patterns and using bold colors. He also did penciled sketches. My mother kept his drawings in the closet for years. I’ve since framed some of them and have digitized most of the colored ink pictures.
The link to all of this was Virgilio; he was the artistic patron saint of our family. He was misunderstood, perhaps ridiculed. For being different, for being gay. For being talented. And because of this, he shunned our family. There was a precious history to the man.
But Virgilio would remain a ghost to me. I’d never meet the man. After my father died, I forgot about Virgilio for a number of years. I never even thought about him, until my mother brought him up, reminding me of the stories. She also said that my father’s cousin did genealogical research. Supposedly the name Vignola came from the North of Italy and was associated with artisans. I didn’t believe this. Southern Italians want to believe that they had roots in the north. Instead of thinking themselves potato farmers and peasants from the south, they’d invent an imagined aristocratic past. But I didn’t believe it.
I never even knew when, if or how Virgilio died. He must have lived out his life the way he wanted to without judgement. He seemed to vanish from the earth without anyone from our family even knowing.
The last time my father talked about Virgilio he described one of his paintings he made that hung in the hallway.
“What really stood out about the painting was the stunning colors and patterns. The way he placed bold colors next to each other and his imaginative use of design. The way he painted made you look at the world in a different way. ”
I didn’t realize it then, but that’s exactly the way I now describe my father’s own drawings.
Mike Fiorito lives in Brooklyn, NY. His stories have appeared in Narratively, Mad Swirl, The Good Men Project and Brownstone Poetry. He is currently working on a short story collection called “Crooners”.